Thursday, April 10, 2014

Blue Opal

Green mountains and bone desert
Snow-capped peaks and dust-dry canyons
Adobe-styled mansions and adobe housing projects
The rich and their majestic views. The poor and their labored paths.
“Santa Fe” RS Wireman

I think of Grandmother every day. I think of her every day when I have construction work downtown. Even on the way up the mountain and on the way back down, I think of her and I still see her sitting next to me in my truck. Grandmother died a year ago, in our home in the flats just below Santa Fe. She was living with us the year I was born. I remember we shared the same room until I was eleven, until my father built another bedroom for me and my older brother in the shed behind our house. I remember sneaking into her room late at night and lay on the floor next to her and her bed. It made my father angry and he would lock the windows at night. I remember all the stories my grandmother told me of her younger days and the dances. I liked to listen, even when she told me the stories over again. She and Grandfather were very much in love. He married her, but did not have her parents’ wish. They went to Santa Fe on Saturdays to go dancing and to listen to Rock and Roll. Her family did not understand. They thought her spirit was pushing against her skin, trying to be released too soon. I remember when she stopped telling stories and could not speak anymore.
Grandmother wanted to die in Farmington, on a reservation where her parents are buried. But, my mother and father were not familiar with that part of New Mexico and they had no living relatives there. Our home was her home, my father scolded her; you are with your family, he would say, and you are in good hands. But Grandmother did not like her room; she whispered to my mother that her room was no place to die. And she said it was emptied of love; something was keeping her spirit trapped inside her skin. My mother tried to make her happy with new bed sheets and curtains and a television. Grandmother only wanted to sit on her floor in her room. The bed was trapping her spirit, she said, and she wanted to die on the floor. No bed, she whispered, but soon she could not speak at all. She was lonely, I do believe this. She always wanted me to be with her, even though she could no longer tell stories. I was her favorite, although she never told me this. My mother often did, and she was not always pleased with it.
Grandmother made beautiful jewelry to sell in Santa Fe. We would lay out her old jewelry on a red blanket with patterns of black and white. We spread her blanket just under the long porch of the Palace of the Governors. We had to get there early. Grandmother would straighten and space each ring and necklace in two rows in front of her folded legs to her liking, but would change their order and move them from one row to the other so that the tourists could bend down to look at her favorite pieces. Grandmother never spoke to tourists. My mother spoke to the tourists. When I grew older, my mother taught me how to barter with the tourists. Grandmother would never look up. Sometimes, I saw her smile, but I did not know why. With me, she would look up and smile, but only after she was done talking to her mother and father, she would say. When she could, Grandmother talked to me more than anyone else, and I believe my parents were often jealous, like children. When I joined a construction team, I would come home very late from Santa Fe, and Grandmother would be waiting for me in her bedroom. She waited for my kiss goodnight, and then I would lay her blankets out on the floor for her to sleep. Mother was always angry the next morning when Grandmother was not in her bed.
I loved my grandmother. But she was strange. I remember my face turning red sometimes at the Palace. Some tourists would bend down to meet her face when trying to purchase her jewelry. I think some did so simply out of curiosity. But no matter how they tried, they would never meet my grandmother's eyes; no matter how they tried. This would make some tourists nervous and they would move on to the other blankets and I knew this and I was embarrassed. My mother was angry whenever a tourist would leave our blanket that way. My father, too. He wanted Grandmother to make more jewelry like the other families in Santa Fe. They had turquoise and silver rings, and also three or four kinds of opal, onyx, and Lapis Lazuli. But Grandmother refused to add turquoise to her silver rings. She said it was not Navajo tradition. I was never sure of that. She would use any metal but silver for her turquoise rings and pendants. Her silver was rain and sky; turquoise was rivers and earth. She would say we live only in one world at one time; not both. We do not have wings. We do not have fins. We are of the earth. Only spirits can fly in the sky. And she never worked with black onyx because it was a hole in the sky. It was not safe to work with such a dark stone, because we could get pulled inside of it and never get out and never grow because your memories will be relived over and over again and you would never find your way out. She loved opal; it held all of the stars and family members who had passed on into the spirit world. Silver and opal could bind well, she said, since they were both of the sky. She made lots of silver jewelry with opal, but she would never sell them; opal had to be chosen; it could not be given away. This made my father angry. He wanted her to work with all the stones that he bought or traded for her.
But this was how Grandmother lived; she had no want of money. She was interested in only me and her jewelry. When construction slowed, I took her to the Square and I tried to sell her jewelry. My mother and father would rest at home, because my father had a new night shift and my mother, too. I knew Grandmother liked those days when I was with her. She squeezed my ankle whenever she was happy.
Her last day on the Square, I remember clearly. My mother had joined us, because the casino had too many on staff. We knew Grandmother was not well, but she refused our wishes to keep her home. The tourists were especially ill-mannered that day. A man in tight, blue shorts told me he gave Grandmother the other half of his money for two pendants. My Grandmother never handled money and never talked with tourists. She never looked up and I knew he was lying. I let the man have his two pendants, because he was loud and scaring other tourists. I remember how angry I was when he threw a dollar in Grandmother’s lap, as if she were a beggar. I took the dollar and ripped it up and threw it in the trash. My mother spit in the trash can, and a friend of hers did the same. I sat next to my Grandmother to console her, but she was not aware of what happened.
My mother sold a lot of Grandmother’s jewelry that day. There were two tour buses parked behind the Palace, and we were their first visit. I sat with Grandmother the rest of the day as Mother worked with the tourists, who were mostly white men and women and some Asian women and their children. As I sat with Grandmother; I saw what my grandmother had seen every day. I saw the tourists’ feet – brown sandals and painted nails and Nike shoes. I saw the smooth legs of women and I smelled their perfume. I heard their questions and I heard their comments. I heard the same things that I heard an hour before asking for a more reasonable price or if our pendants were “guaranteed at such high prices.” I saw hands that were both old and young. Some of the hands I saw were beautiful; skin as white as snow like the tops of mountains, slopes smooth with no wrinkles and with blue or pink or gold-colored nails and fingers with gold rings and diamonds that looked like mountains made of sun and ice. Grandmother saw those things every day. I wondered, if she ever did look up, if she thought the tourists were magical.
When the buses left the Square in the afternoon, I pulled my truck up to our blanket and lifted Grandmother into the truck and locked her in her seat belt. I placed a pillow behind her head and covered her in a blanket that her sister had made twenty four years ago. My mother stayed behind to sell more jewelry. I wanted her to come home with us. I feared Grandmother was too weak and that she may leave us soon, but Mother thought she was not any different than yesterday and she was sure one more bus had yet to come since they came in threes.
 I drove us down the mountain, and traffic was very heavy. Grandmother was too quiet. I worried that I would not make it home before Grandmother left us. I squeezed her hand to make sure she was still with me, and when I squeezed I could feel her blood moving in soft drum beats. I moved her hand onto my lap. At each stop light, I looked down at her hand to make sure her fingers still moved when I squeezed them. Grandmother had large fingers, swollen and thick from cuts and stabs from her jewelry making. I could see her blue veins curving and bending like spring desert washes under her skin. When we reached the plain, I turned into our drive and looked over at Grandmother because her head now rested against the window. I reached for her, and she wet her lips and it made me feel good that she did. I looked out the window back up the mountain and wished that my mother had not stayed. She was too far away. The road climbed up and disappeared behind mansions overlooking our desert. Their tall windows and clay roof-top porches reflected the sun and looked like a river of diamonds. I thought to go back for Mother, but my father touched my shoulder through the truck window. His eyes looked worried and sad as he watched Grandmother.
My father helped lay Grandmother on her bed. My father was very sad and he grabbed my shoulders and told me he would call for my mother. He bent over the bed and kissed Grandmother on the forehead and he wished her well on her journey. He kissed her again and wiped his eyes with his hands and left the room. I closed the door and I hurried back to the bed. I picked Grandmother up and sat her down on the floor against the wall, under her window. I laid her blanket in front of her and flattened it out. I pulled out from under her bed two rusted coffee cans.I spilled them in the middle of the blanket into a heap of silver rings and turquoise rings and pendants that Grandmother made years and years ago when I was young. Grandmother reached her hand out over them and tried to lay them in rows. I helped her and she corrected me when I misplaced them. She moved large rings next to small ones, and others she placed back into her cans. I held her elbow to reach the cans.
I held Grandmother against the wall because she was slowly falling onto her side. She still looked over her blanket and jewelry, but she no longer moved her rings. I leaned against the wall with her and I placed her hand in mine. But she let go and pointed to the floor next to her dresser. There was a Folgers can under it. I never knew she had a can under her dresser. I pulled it out and I saw what was inside. I understood why Grandmother wanted the can. I collected her jewelry from the blanket and returned them to the other cans. I spilled the Folgers can onto the blanket: a dozen or more silver rings with opal inlay fell out. Some rings had fire opal and black opal, too. Some were white opal and some were blue opal with gold flecks. I moved the pile closer to Grandmother, against her bare legs. I helped Grandmother reach them. I held her elbow as she laid each opal out in a row. She touched them all and moved them in an order only she understood. She returned to one of the blue opals and picked it up and brought it to her leg. I brought her hand up to her lap, and she clasped the ring between her hands. I kissed her cheek and I told her I loved her. I wished her a peaceful journey and I hoped to see her again. She squeezed the heavens and the stars between her hands and she never let go. She saw her sister and her mother and her father and my grandfather. She then entered her opal to greet them.


  1. A beautiful story Randy. You made me cry.

    Lana Krulik

  2. Hi Lana! Thank you so much. I was struck by the differences in wealth and culture in New Mexico. One class wore the Southwest as art and played in it, while the other side worked the Southwest and survived it. Just my observation.